“Then and Now” Brings Old and New Together at Shades of Dance

Dance Histories, Israeli Choreographers, Israeli Festivals, Performances, Video Views

Video: Then: Ronit Ziv’s Rose Can’t Wait, from the 1999 Shades of Dance Festival

On my way home from “Then and Now,” a special opening program of the Shades of Dance (Gvanim) festival, J.S. Bach’s Air on the G String played on my iPod.  Immediately, images from a black-and-white film of choreographer Doris Humphrey’s Air for the G String flashed through my mind. Humphrey’s dance has not only been immortalized on film but stayed alive in reconstructions from Labanotation score; it’s a powerful reminder that choreography doesn’t need to be shelved a few years or even many decades after its premiere.

This was an appropriate vision after a concert which not only celebrated the new but paid tribute to the old.  Opening a festival devoted to emerging choreographers, “Then and Now” featured excerpts of four dances which, in the days when the festival doubled as a competition, won the coveted first prize.  Selections from Nir Ben Gal and Liat Dror’s Two-Room Apartment (1987), Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al’s Vertigo (1992), Barak Marshall’s Aunt Leah (1995), and Ronit Ziv’s Rose Can’t Wait (1999) shared the stage with excerpts from the choreographers’ latest dances.

These works were met with an extremely warm reception, and I’m sure that the choreographers’ own performances contributed to the excitement.  The prolonged unison and matter-of-fact manners of Nir Ben Gal and Liat Dror, the high-speed actions and reactions of Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al, and the daring physicality of Ronit Ziv and fellow dancer Noa Rosenthal were riveting to watch – especially because, in the case of Nir & Liat and Noa & Adi, these choreographers no longer perform on a regular basis. (( Barak Marshall, who is now based part-time in L.A., was not in Israel for this performance. ))

Yet part of the thrill was the return of these older works to the stage. Other than Aunt Leah, which was restaged at the Inbal Dance Theater in autumn 2008, these dances are not in active repertory.  Some devoted, longtime dance-goers may have remembered these works, but for many audience members, this was the first chance to see the highly original and even audacious dances which propelled these choreographers into the upper echelon of Israeli contemporary dance.  The showing was also an extraordinary opportunity for me to reflect on the trademark styles and artistic development of these choreographers, to better understand their more recent works which have graced the stage in the last two seasons.

There simply aren’t enough occasions to see older works here in Israel.  A few of the larger groups like the Batsheva Dance Company and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company have happily shown some repertory from decades past (albeit sometimes in excerpt form, as when Ohad Naharin recombines parts of various pieces in Deca Dance).  Yet most choreographers who work outside of these institutions are primarily putting their most recent works onstage, perhaps because of more limited resources and a series of festivals which spur the creation of new works.  If the choreographers themselves don’t mount their earlier dances, no one else will.  The country does not have an established repertory company whose mission is to celebrate Israeli-made choreography both past and present.  Nor is there a network of university dance departments which might reconstruct earlier dances or invite choreographers to set their older repertory on students, as there is in the U.S.  (( There are many fine high school dance departments in Israel and they do often bring in independent choreographers, but these departments are rarely if ever staging older works from the 1980s and 1990s. ))

If this system continues unchanged, the early – and in some cases significant – works by Israel’s contemporary choreographers may be lost.  But I believe this is avoidable.  While modern dance’s roots in this region stretch as far back as the 1920s, the real blossoming of Israeli contemporary dance is not that distant.  It is far easier to unearth a dance made twenty years ago than one created eighty years ago.  Indeed, the Israeli artists who, during the 1980s and 1990s, triumphed in establishing a thriving independent dance scene are still active in the field and capable of setting their early choreography given the opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly in favor of celebrating the new.  The constant push for creation advances the art form forward; to only perform older work would lead to stagnation.  Yet I believe that the field could benefit from the revival and repeated performance of earlier works, which can educate and inspire audiences and dance professionals alike.

I hope that Shades of Dance will make this opening performance of old and new works a tradition so that we can witness the power of choreographic breakthroughs firsthand.   Twenty years from now, perhaps audiences will be treated to another viewing of Shaked Dagan’s We Are Going Back, Michael Miler’s The Speed of Light, or Ronen and Tami Yitzhaki’s This Time, which premiered in this year’s festival and caught my eye.   And I wish that more support – be it through festivals, dance departments, or other funding mechanisms – will enable choreographers to restage their acclaimed earlier repertory sooner rather than later.   Dances which merit a place in history also deserve to live in the bodies of dancers and the eyes of viewers.

Video: Now: Ronit Ziv’s La Femme A, La Femme B

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